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Unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to Block Critics on Twitter

To many, his Twitter page has become the face of his presidency

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A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled unanimously Tuesday that because Trump's Twitter account is a public forum.

A U.S. court ruling that it is unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critics on Twitter has reignited criticism of politicians who ban detractors from their social media accounts.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled unanimously Tuesday that because Trump’s Twitter account is a “public forum,” he can’t block users who disagree with him. Since the earliest days of his administration, Trump has used Twitter to make on-the-fly policy, lash out at his critics and voice his opinion on virtually every subject. To many, his Twitter page has become the face of his presidency.

“The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees,” Judge Barrington Parker wrote on behalf of the panel.

Lesson for politicians

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FILE – White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino listens to President Donald Trump speak during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House, Feb. 15, 2019. VOA

While Parker stressed the ruling does not extend to all social media accounts operated by public officials, First Amendment advocates said the decision nonetheless serves as a lesson to politicians who block critics from “private” social media accounts that often double as communication platforms with the public. There are at least a half-dozen other lawsuits pending against U.S. politicians, from county officials to governors, who have sought to silence their critics on social media.

“We hope that as a result of this decision, public officials will take note and recognize that they need to be able to withstand criticism from their constituents,” said Carrie DeCell, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which two years ago filed the lawsuit that led to Tuesday’s ruling.

Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed similar lawsuits against public officials, said the ruling should remind politicians that “blocking critics from an official social media account is unconstitutional.”

“Social media is the new town hall — once an official opens either up to the public, they can’t selectively exclude those whose views they disagree with,” Bhandari said.

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Trump has nearly 62 million followers on Twitter. His tweets are widely shared, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times, generating both deep praise and harsh criticism — all out on a free-for-all, no-holds-barred platform.

Despite the freewheeling nature of his Twitter page, Trump, who runs the account with the help of his social media director, Dan Scavino, is known to have banned several dozen followers in recent years.

The lawsuit was brought in July 2017 on behalf of seven followers blocked by Trump and centered on whether the First Amendment applied to @realDonaldTrump Twitter account.

Government lawyers representing Trump argued in court that it did not because Trump’s account was “private” and that he used it exclusively as “a vehicle for his own speech.”

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A U.S. court ruling that it is unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critics on Twitter. Pixabay

But lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the account is for all practical purposes a “public forum” and that Trump violated the seven individuals’ First Amendment rights by banning them from his page.

Both a district court in May 2018 and the appeals court on Tuesday agreed with the plaintiffs. After the district court ruling, all seven plaintiffs were quietly unblocked from Trump’s Twitter account. In addition, the Knight Institute asked for the unblocking of 20 to 30 others who had been banned by Trump. Most of those, too, were unblocked, DeCell said.

Trump is not the only politician sued over blocking social media critics. The ACLU is suing officials in Kentucky, Maine, Maryland and Virginia on behalf of constituents who were blocked on social media. In addition, it has sent letters to politicians in Nebraska and New York to unblock users or face lawsuits.

Demanding to be unbanned

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In April, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Republican Congressman and Trump ally Peter King demanding that he “unban” dozens of constituents on Facebook.

King had argued that he had the right to block people from the “Congressman Peter King” Facebook page because it was a campaign account, and not one used for his congressional work. But the ACLU countered, “King wrapped the page in the trappings of his office and used it as a tool of governance.”

In response, King in May created a new, official Facebook page that will not ban users based on their views while continuing to use his original page for campaign purposes.

“We are pleased that the congressman agreed to launch a new Facebook page that will serve as his official government account from which he will not block users,” said Antony Gemmell, a staff attorney at the NYCLU.”Similar to [Tuesday’s] ruling on the president blocking people from his Twitter account, the congressman cannot block people from his official government Facebook page simply because he disagrees with their opinions.”

The Justice Department said it was “disappointed” with the appeals court’s decision and was “exploring possible next steps.”

“As we argued, President Trump’s decision to block users from his personal Twitter account does not violate the First Amendment,” DOJ spokesperson Kelly Laco said.

Hans von Spakovsky, a legal affairs fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the appeals court made “a very basic mistake of law and a basic factual mistake” and that the Justice Department should appeal the decision.

“The First Amendment only applies in a public forum such as a public park,” von Spakovsky said. “But Twitter is not a public forum. Twitter is a private company.” (VOA)

Next Story

Trump to Pursue Higher Sales Age for Vaping Devices: ‘An Age Limit of 21 or So’

Trump told reporters his administration will release its final plans for restricting e-cigarettes next week but provided few other details

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President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Nov. 8, 2019. VOA

President Donald Trump said Friday his administration will pursue raising the age to purchase electronic cigarettes from 18 to 21 in its upcoming plans to combat youth vaping.

Trump told reporters his administration will release its final plans for restricting e-cigarettes next week but provided few other details.

“We have to take care of our kids, most importantly, so we’re going to have an age limit of 21 or so,” said Trump, speaking outside the White House.

Currently the minimum age to purchase any tobacco or vaping product is 18, under federal law. But more than one-third of U.S. states have already raised their sales age to 21.

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FILE – A woman buys refills for her Juul at a smoke shop in New York, Dec. 20, 2018. VOA

A federal law raising the purchase age would require congressional action.

Administration officials were widely expected to release plans this week for removing virtually all flavored e-cigarettes from the market. Those products are blamed for soaring rates of underage use by U.S. teenagers.

However, no details have yet appeared, leading vaping critics to worry that the administration is backing away from its original plan.

Trump resisted any specifics on the scope of the restrictions.

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“We’re talking about the age, we’re talking about flavors, we’re also talking about keeping people working — there are some pretty good aspects,” Trump said.

Mint flavor

Underage vaping has reached what health officials call epidemic levels. In the latest government survey, 1 in 4 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous month.

Fruit, candy, dessert and other sweet vaping flavors have been targeted because of their appeal to underage users.

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FILE – A man blows a puff of smoke as he vapes with an electronic cigarette, Oct. 18, 2019. VOA

On Thursday, Juul Labs, the nation’s largest e-cigarette maker, announced it would voluntarily pull its mint-flavored e-cigarettes from the market. That decision followed new research that Juul’s mint is the top choice for many high school students who vape.

With the removal of mint, Juul only sells two flavors: tobacco and menthol.

Vaping critics say menthol must be a part of the flavor ban to prevent teens who currently use mint from switching over.

‘Tobacco 21’ law

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Juul and other tobacco companies have lobbied in support of a federal “Tobacco 21” law to reverse teen use of both e-cigarettes and traditional tobacco products. The effort also has broad bipartisan support in Congress, including a bill introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The logic for hiking the purchase age for cigarettes and other products is clear: Most underage teens who use e-cigarettes or tobacco get it from older friends. Raising the minimum age to 21 is expected to limit the supply of those products in U.S. schools.

Delaying access to cigarettes is also expected to produce major downstream health benefits, with one government-funded report estimating nearly 250,000 fewer deaths due to tobacco over several decades.

Still, anti-tobacco groups have insisted that any “Tobacco 21” law must be accompanied by a ban on flavors, which they say are the primary reason young people use e-cigarettes. (VOA)